Training Days

Posted by on Oct 24, 2011 in Shizuoka, Travel Volunteer Journey | 5 Comments
Training Days

Today is our 40th day as travel volunteers: if we were emigrating pets, or Jesus Christ, it’d be time to leave quarantine and come home for a bite to eat and a bit of a cuddle. But we’re neither, so we keep travelling. In fact, for two of those 40 days, we’ve been nothing but passengers. Forty-eight hours is our extremely conservative estimate about how long we’ve spent on Japan’s trains, so we thought it was about time we told you all about them.

Earlier this year, while in America we looked into the prospect of travelling by train. It was slow and infrequent, and at least as expensive as flying. We ended up taking a bus with the bums and psychopaths instead. When we got home to the UK, we were faced with more or less the same problem, so we hired a car.

Other times we’ve been in countries with train networks that are cheap, but no wonder – in places like Sri Lanka they’re still using relics of the colonial era. As often as not they fail to make their destination at all, let alone follow any recognisable timetable.

So when it comes to trains, our expectations aren’t exactly sky-high. But in Japan, they really, really should be. There is a level of efficiency and punctuality that goes well beyond the norm. It’s never late, nor is it early – it arrives precisely when it means to. To employ an old cliché, you can set your watch by the trains, and if not then YOUR WATCH IS WRONG.

The Japanese rail network hates lateness like ryokans hate beds (i.e. a lot). Anything over 60 seconds of tardiness is explained over the tannoy, with no small amount of apologies. It’s impressive stuff, it really is, especially when you consider the sheer number of trains pinging around the country at every moment of every day. Overground, underground, they’re everywhere.

Plus, they’re tidy, and clean. The mighty shinkansen has power points; other models have overhead luggage space; trolly dollies push battered carts up and down the aisles – it often feels more like getting on a plane than a train.

Riding the bullet train is a must, a quintessentially Japanese experience. The first time we boarded one, we couldn’t wait to see the world fly past. To our surprise, though, the majority of time was spent underground. The fastest trains take the most direct routes to justify their inflated prices. As the majority of Japan is covered by mountains, this means making like The Jam and going underground. Actually, to get a real idea of the speed of the shinkansen, it’s best to stand in a station while one of them tears through.

The Shinkansen from Travel Volunteer on Vimeo.

That, by the way, is it slowing down to pass through the station. When on board a stationary train, the rush of air from a passing bullet is so great it shoves the whole carriage to one side.

There aren’t many downsides to train travel in Japan – but it’s not perfect, either. Today en route to Hamamatsu, we accidentally stumbled onto the smoking carriage of the shinkansen. It’s a funny thing about the forward-looking Japanese, that their love of smoking – in bars, restaurants, trains – remains undulled, despite it becoming increasingly unpopular in virtually every other developed country. Anyway, we got away from the smokers as quickly as possible, dragging our bags past commuters somehow eating in the middle of the reeking fug, their senses so extinguished by their own addictions that they simply didn’t care.

The other downside, just like back home, is how expensive it is. Yes you can get everywhere at all times of day, but for heaven’s sake don’t start converting all the costs back to your own currency, especially if you want to ride the bullet train, and definitely if you want to book a reserved seat.

But there is a way to cut down on all this: get a rail card. Just make sure you apply for it before you fly to Japan, because, owning to some bureaucratic red tape, you can’t get it once you’re here.

So do that, then you can sit back and relax. Just don’t miss your stop – the train won’t hang around.


Our time in Shizuoka prefecture was made possible by:

The ever-awesome Yasu and Angela for hosting us, not just in Izu, but in Hakuba back in Nagano too. They spend their summers by the sunny seaside, and the winters on the snowy slopes and are, make no mistake about it, a very cool couple. No matter the season, if you’re planning on visiting Japan and are looking for a hostel, check them out here.

Also, a quick thank you to Real Surf in Izu, who turned a blind eye to the enormous hole Jamie contrived to get in his wetsuit. His claims that the tear came while wrestling a shark were believed by precisely no one, but still the shop didn’t charge extra for the repair.
















  1. Kavey
    October 24, 2011

    Love your collection of black and white images, really striking.

  2. Eric
    October 25, 2011

    Same here!

    The contrast between sheer modernity of the Shinkansen and the “antique” effect of black & white pictures is excellent.

    I also hope there will be another post about those slow, local trains, with one or two wagons only and which seem to date back from an undefined era, with “guillotine” windows and wooden seats, though! That would also be an interesting contrast to the Shinkansen.

    (for those who don’t know what I mean, check here:

  3. Lesley
    October 25, 2011

    Awesome pictures, love them!

    I think part of the reason why Japan’s trains are so incredibly efficient (in a way they never could be here) is because the railway workers are forbidden from forming any sort of union, so lack quite important employment rights. They have to work overnight, for example, for no extra money. So I’m told.

    Also, I’ve been told that if a train is more than a couple of minutes late, a ticket compensation receipt is given to passengers so that they can pass it on to their bosses if they’re late to work (obviously, the old ‘train was late’ excuse doesn’t really work in Japanese workplaces). If the train is late because of someone committing suicide by jumping on the tracks (as is usually the case in the rare case of a delayed train), then the bill for the total of those compensation receipts is dumped on the family of the person who committed suicide. That can’t be nice phonecall to receive: “sorry to tell you that your husband killed himself this morning, and also, you owe us a lot of money”. Such is brutally efficient Japan!

  4. Eunice
    October 25, 2011

    I love your train pictures! They are so wonderful – and the black and white makes the sleekness of the trains pop!!

  5. ted
    December 16, 2011

    The next time you’re on a shinkansen, sit toward the very back of a car. As you enter and exit tunnels, notice how the walls seem to ‘breathe,’ pulsing with the changes in pressure. Science!